Some people are born with wanderlust, and I’m one of them. From an early age, a curiosity about the world and yearning for the exotic compelled me to read travel books: Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, Freya Stark’s The Southern Gates of Arabia and more.
Is it any wonder I developed a passion for exploring destinations that were extraordinarily beautiful and culturally unusual. Or that pursuing this passion altered my understanding of what it means to be a member of the human family—that people are, fundamentally, more alike than different. This realization didn’t come like a bolt of lightning. Instead, it was gradual.
The transformation began when, as a 16-year-old, an adult friend arranged an opportunity for me to teach school on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. Immersed in its black native culture, I initially felt like an outsider. But a student’s father, Saul, befriended me. I admired him as the best guitarist on the island and frequently listened to his band at the Famous Door, the island’s ramshackle bar. I taught his daughter grammar, math and music, and eventually felt close to Saul’s entire family—as well as the families of other students.
As time passed, I became color-blind and more sociable. Skin color and cultural differences were irrelevant. My students were, in fact, not unlike kids everywhere trying to get a good education and deciding what to do with their lives. Mutual respect resulted in friendships that endured for years.
Imagine my excitement when, after college graduation, I took off for two months to explore South America on my own: Brazil, the Andes Mountains of Peru, remote Bolivia —and more. The places I’d read about in books changed from abstractions to realities. I even traveled with a missionary to stay with an Indian tribe in the Amazon. At first, these men and women, carrying rusty knives and clothed in next to nothing, unsettled me. But they offered a hammock, food cooked over a fire pit and a chance to hunt game with them in the jungle. My perspective changed. Former apprehen- sions disappeared, and I found that my hosts could be as generous as neighbors at home.
Years later, when my wife vowed tonguein-cheek that she’d follow me “to the ends of the earth,” she didn’t think I’d take her seriously. More adventures followed. And our mind-expanding explorations spanned seven continents.
We made a trip, for example, to Bhutan in the Himalayas where the country’s benevolent and popular king was transforming the country from an absolute monarchy to a multi-party democracy. In the capital of Thimphu, a group of local men and women anxiously expressed to us a hope that the new government would preserve their unique measure of national well-being, Gross National Happiness (GNH). It takes into account more than economic output, called Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in our country, and includes factors such as health, literacy, cultural diversity, environmental preservation and more. Clearly, the “pursuit of happiness” was just as important to Bhutan’s citizens as it was to the framers of our Declaration of Independence.
Learning about people’s differences still fascinates me, but discovering what we have in common now excites me more. Transformative travel can help everyone set aside prejudices based on ignorance or misunderstanding. In hindsight, I realize that it has little to do with miles traveled and much to do with taking the first step out of our provincial cocoons.
As Mark Twain reminds us, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness … charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth.”
James Spenceris a writer, photographer and citizen of the world.